Top 5 Benefits of Acupuncture
1. Pain Relief
Pain is a helpful tool that the body uses to stop you from over-using an injured part of your body. Unfortunately, however, pain will often also stop your from exercising, which is an important part of injury recovery. It’s for that reason that minimising pain is a priority in early stages of injury recovery.
If you don’t want to take painkillers, or if you can’t take analgesic drugs (ASADA bans analgesics for some sports), then local needling is a safe, effective and evidence-based pain management tool. In fact, a 2014 trial was conducted on 550 patients in Emergency Departments around Melbourne. We are awaiting publication, but the initial release of results demonstrated that the pain relief that patients experienced after acupuncture was similar to Panadeine Forte.
2. Break Down Scar Tissue
Pain isn’t the only thing that stops people from returning to their day-to-day activities. Scarring and other structural changes can cause a physical block to the normal movement of a joint, which makes exercise difficult, and recovery slow.
There are a variety of ways to break apart scar tissue or damaged connective tissue – surgery, hydrodilatation, massage (if it is superficial); but the trend in this particular area of research is towards dry-needling. Someone skilled at needling will guide a needle into the obstruction and physically break it apart. It takes less than an hour, and no anaesthetic is required.
3. Improve Inflammatory Response
Injury recovery occurs in three phases: the acute phase, the subacute phase, and the chronic phase. Inflammation is counter-productive in the acute phase (first 48 hours) because the rapid swelling of an area can cause more damage. That is why we RICER (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate & Refer) acute injuries.
In the subacute and chronic phases (the time between the acute phase and recovery) however, inflammation is very helpful. The increased blood flow around an injury provides much-needed oxygen, collagen, and sugars to heal the damage. Needling provides a local, artificial inflammation that increases and prolongs the body’s natural inflammatory process, and therefore increasing the rate of healing.
A 2016 Literature Review of 4 Randomised Control Trials showed that acupuncture is a safer, more cost-effective, and more efficient method of treating back pain than the current standard care. Moreover, a 2017 Comparative Review found similar results for tennis elbow, neck pain, foot pain, sciatica, and shoulder pain.
4. Facilitate Muscle Growth
When it comes to muscles, you use it, or you lose it. After resting, your muscle will lose strength and size very quickly. It works like this:
A muscle stops contracting (due to wearing a cast, strapping, or as a direct result of injury, etc.)
The muscle, therefore, stops signalling the central nervous system with information about its tightness and position, etc.
The lack of neurological input causes the brain to deprioritise the unused muscle, which further reduces that muscle’s ability to contract.
This cycle is called a positive feedback loop, and it looks like this:
Needling, specifically a technique call motor-point needling, can provide a break in the positive feedback loop. By creating small, but repeated muscle contractions within an unused muscle, an experienced acupuncturist can increase neurological input from a muscle to the brain and allow for muscle regrowth.
Motor point needling is a useful tool for injury recovery, but a 2016 Randomised Control Trial on 30 professional soccer players has demonstrated that this is even a useful technique to improve strength in healthy muscles.
5. Lengthen Tight Muscles
When a muscle is tight, it’s painful, it’s uncomfortable, and it restricts the range of motion of the whole joint. Tight muscles are a factor of almost every sports injury and will massively increase recovery time if left unresolved.
Previous to the last 5-10 years, the standard care was massage and simple stretching. Current research has shown that that will only provide temporary relief. The modern gold standard of care is a combination of a strength program (to address muscle weakness) and needling (to treat muscle tightness)
Needing into the bands of a tight muscle causes a spinal cord reflex to lengthen that muscle. It takes only a few minutes to complete, and after a short cause of treatment, the benefit is permanent. There is a vast body of evidence to support this effect of needling – the most recent 2017 Comparative Literature Review into acupuncture shows muscle lengthening as a factor for 15 different injuries.
Cohen, M., Parker, S., Taylor, D., Ben-Meir, M., Cameron, P., & Xue, C. (2011). Acupuncture as analgesia for low back pain, ankle sprain and migraine in emergency departments: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 12(1), 241.
Nahin RL, Boineau R, Khalsa PS, Stussman BJ, Weber WJ. Evidence-Based Evaluation of Complementary Health Approaches for Pain Management in the United States. Mayo Clin Proc. 2016 Sep;91(9):1292-306.
McDonald J, Janz S. The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review (Revised Edition). Commissioned by Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd. Jan 2017
Haser, C., Stöggl, T., Kriner, M., Mikoleit, J., Wolfahrt, B., Scherr, J., … & Pfab, F. (2017). Effect of Dry Needling on Thigh Muscle Strength and Hip Flexion in Elite Soccer Players. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 49(2), 378-383.
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Mitchell is a trained, sport-specific acupuncturist, and has studied both in Australia and in China. He holds both his Bachelor and Masters degrees, and has been working in musculoskeletal acupuncture for 5 years, with a particular focus in runners’ injuries, and surgery rehabilitation.